MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, civil rights leader and former diplomat, Ambassador Andrew Young, talks about why he's so interested in Africa. That's the second of a two-part conversation that started last week, and that's in just a few minutes. But first, we've been talking today and throughout the week about pressing issues involving food and health: the crisis in food prices, the obesity epidemic. And it occurred to us that families are the places where most of these issues play out. We wanted to speak to a national leader who spent a great deal of time thinking about the challenges facing families today. So I took a trip to the Capitol Hill yesterday to visit with Senator Chris Dodd, the senior senator from Connecticut. And we talked in his office on Capitol Hill.
Senator Dodd has spent a large part of his congressional career working on behalf of children and families. He co-founded the first children's caucus in the Senate. He co-sponsored the Family and Medical Leave Act. He also recently ran for president, but he ended his bid after the Iowa caucuses. Back on the Hill, he continues to devote a lot of time to children's issues. And I asked Dodd why, after all this time, despite the fact that families and children play such an important role in our society, that there is no children's agenda.
Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut; Chairman, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs): Well, I've tried over the years and worked with people like Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund to have a children's agenda, these comprehensive bills we've introduced in almost every Congress. They usually don't go very far. Pieces of them do, but never the comprehensive piece of legislation.
I think it's both for good and bad reasons. The first - the good reason is, is that - the great news is - is up until fairly recently, children, as a percentage of the population that need health care and help, are fairly small and limited. That's great news. I mean, most kids grow up fairly healthy and have very few medical issues and problems. The bad news is, of course, they don't vote. They don't have political action committees. It's out of constituency that really has any political clout. Despite the fact people have nice feelings about kids, and they all get warm and fuzzy about it all the time, when it actually comes down to doing something, on so many of these issues...
Family and Medical Leave took me seven years, two vetoes, before it finally became the law of the land, after that much of an effort. And despite the fact that members of Congress were going home, tending to their children, wives, spouses, children during times of illness and difficulty, always getting paid, never being chastised for being not at work, going to committee hearings, casting votes, yet that same senator was unwilling to make that same opportunity available to his own constituency.
MARTIN: Currently, you're trying to pass a new Family and Medical Leave legislation. This one would require workers to be paid for taking some time off. Given that it took seven years to get unpaid family medical leave, how do you assess your chances?
Senator DODD: Well, this is a very radical idea, I must tell you. This is stunning. In 15 years, 16 million Americans have taken advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act. But one out of five, I think it is, families that didn't - that were eligible and didn't take it is because they couldn't afford to. The idea you're going to take off several weeks and not get paid at all makes it almost impossible for a lot of families to take advantage of.
MARTIN: But given, as you point out, that you now have a Congress in which there are many working parents, dual working parents, as you have both husband and wife, or you - some of these, you have single parents who are working. Do you think that we still have fundamental philosophical differences about whether women should work? Do you think that's the objection?
Senator DODD: Well, less of a problem today. But here I'm telling you with a lot of the cases you and I talk, this is about fair pay for women. And here we are, still in a filibuster over whether or not women ought to be paid equally. This is still a problem. I mean, despite the fact that we've changed dramatically with two and three and four income earners in the same household to make ends meet, and obviously, women playing a major role in all of that. We're still facing filibusters, unable to break these 60-vote margins in a 100-vote Senate, indicates that while we've come a long way, we have got a long way to go.
And I think it, frankly, will be easier in some ways to deal with a paid leave bill than it would have been a few years ago. Because you're right, things have changed to some degree. I've got a lot more women in the Senate today than I did back in 1980s, when I was writing the legislation the first time. And so as caregivers, traditionally more an accepted role for women, they understand it better in many ways. Well, what it means actually be with someone. They understand what it means with a newborn, to be able to have the time available just to get your life settled, let alone the acquisitions, the purchases, the cost, everything else associated with it.
MARTIN: One of the things that has always intrigued me, and I'm sure you've talked about this with other people, is how you got interested in these issues, because you started working on them long before you had children yourself.
Senator DODD: Yeah, I used to get teased a lot about that. I don't get teased so much anymore with a three-year-old and a six-year-old. I do a lot of teasing now. I still get teased but different things now.
MARTIN: You get teased for being crazy.
Senator DODD: I get teased for being crazy. And as I say, I'm the only - I used to say I was the only presidential candidate who got mail from AARP and diaper services. With a three-year-old and a six-year-old.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Senator DODD: And I got - I come from a big family, big family by today's standards. But when I was growing up, being one of six children was sort of standard fare. And for one reason or another, I mean, I come from a family of teachers. When I was in the Peace Corps, I started a youth club back in the twenties, and I was involved in Big Brothers, Big Sisters. And I was single for many, many years. So I don't - it just seemed like when I got to the Senate, I looked around, and I was impressed with senators who developed a specialty, kind of carved areas out. Didn't, kind of, a Jack of every issue that came along. And we had senators involved in every imaginable issue. But as I looked around, there was not a lot of attention being paid to children's issues.
So Arlen Specter, who was a freshman senator in 1981 with me. I said, well, first of all, why don't we make it bipartisan. I was in the minority in the Senate in those days. And we got together and started the children's caucus together.
MARTIN: Part of me wonders whether it's been easier or harder for you to take up that cause because you're a man. And people don't necessarily believe that you know what you're talking about.
Senator DODD: Well, that's - there's some of that, I think. But also, you know, in a way, you also get a benefit, you know. When a man stays home one night and takes care of the kids, everyone says, isn't that wonderful? Isn't it terrific that he stayed home to watch his children? A woman does that, and they go, oh, that's what you're supposed to be doing. So in a sense, taking up the issue as a male member of the Senate, first of all, there weren't a lot of women around to take it up, anyway. But when I did it, you sort of - I think I got more credit for doing it than I probably deserved, candidly, because it was a man taking it up.
MARTIN: Well, just one more question on this. I'm still on kids. No Child Left Behind expired last September. The Senate's working on a reauthorization. You know, this was a big issue on the campaign trail, as I recall, when you were campaigning.
Senator DODD: Right.
MARTIN: And just briefly, as briefly as you can, given how much time you spent thinking about it. What do you think should happen? Is it fixable? Scrap and start over?
Senator DODD: Well, it has to be fixable. It has to be fixable. I mean, you can't - I don't want to go back. Anyone who says we want to go back to how the world was before we moved on this legislation, I think it would be a major mistake. Achieving gaps have to be closed and accountability of all involved and seeing to it that people are not being socially promoted through a system are matters we've got to address. And so I still want to see us come back and do that. I want us to be judging the whole child and their growth, rather than just doing these test prep centers. Obviously, paying for it, something we all thought was going to be the case and turned out not to be the case at all and have saddled local communities, primarily with the cost of meeting these federal mandates has been astronomical.
But the most important point, I think, is the growth model, rather than the testing model that is so crippling to schools. And you hear from parents and others this idea of just spending all day, every day, weeks on end, getting a child prepared to pass some test. So the teacher looks good, the school looks good, the superintendent looks good, the principal looks good, the governor looks good, and...
MARTIN: You mean you want to focus on whether schools are improving, as opposed to just hitting certain test targets.
Senator DODD: Absolutely. Yeah. And then also this idea, if a school doesn't do well, we're going to shut it down. That's a great - that's wonderful. I mean, that's exactly what we need to hear, you know? Schools that are not doing well, you help! And you roll up your sleeves, and you go to work.
MARTIN: If you put on your Banking Committee Chairman hat for a minute, you held a hearing last week on how the credit crisis is affecting student loans. How concerned are you about this issue going forth, particularly in the upcoming academic year?
Senator DODD: Michel, you chose the exact word I would use, concerned. The words I use as the chairman of this committee have to be thought about carefully. And so I'd use the word concerned. Do feel as it is in a crisis? Not yet. I haven't met anybody that hasn't been able to get a student loan. They may not like the cost of it, but they can get them.
First of all, I think we've got to do what we can to increase the federal student loan program so that it is available loans. I think direct loans make a lot of sense for institutions that want to do it, and we ought to make it more available for them to do it. But we also, candidly, have to keep an eye on institutions. Forty grand. The cost of education has been going up, doubling the rate of inflation over the last number of years. Now there are a lot reasons why that happens, but one of the things that I want to do is to establish a, sort of, a report card that you, as a parent, could go to and say, I am thinking of sending my child to X, Y, Z university or college. I wonder how they are performing and doing when it comes to keeping costs down. So we need to get back and do a better job. Obviously, this idea of students and kids being denied a higher education because they cannot afford it is unacceptable.
MARTIN: The Bush administration has talked about more rigorous evaluation of higher education and they are getting a lot of pushback from institutions on this point. Do you think they are on to something?
Sen. DODD: I think it is. Look. Everyone has got to take a harder look at this. Candidly, if the rates of inflation continue the way they are, what is it going to cost to send my three-year-old or my six-year-old, 12 years from now? And how do working families even think about this? Coming up with that kind of money year in and year out, ending up with one hundred, thousand dollars in student loans, and that's not out of the question any longer. Career choices are being made on that basis. People might otherwise think about being a teacher. Maybe going in to social services and doing something that is not as rewarding financially as other professions in life become unavailable because you just cannot afford to do them. Those are things that have to be a part of this equation and institutions need to be examined and looked at and they ought not to react negatively to it.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I am speaking to Connecticut's Senior Senator Chris Dodd about issues affecting children and families. I would like to put your politics head on for a moment. You were chairman of the Democratic National Committee, among other roles that you have played over the years. As a party leader, as a former candidate, do you think it is time for the party leadership to try to bring the process to a close? There has been a lot of criticism this week after the Pennsylvania primary about the way the two remaining candidates have been attacking each other. Now, of course, you are an Obama supporter and you have declared this, but would you like to see party leaders broker a solution before the convention? Do you think it is possible?
Sen. DODD: It has to be done before the convention and I hope this will come to some closure. The results in Pennsylvania, and I say this in respect for the people of Pennsylvania who got up there and campaigned for Obama, it was almost the worst number you could think of. Had Mrs. Clinton won by 15 points, there would be people who would be saying that maybe they ought to reevaluate all of this. If she had won by four points, people would say, let's get her over with now. Ten points sort of left her there right in middle so we're going to stumble along for a few more weeks.
But it's not so much the campaign going on, it's how it's being conducted. We used to be known in this country for celebrating people's lives. We have reached a point now we do just the opposite. We do everything in our power to sort of damage people's reputations, and this process seems to be determined to do that. These are two good people and out there, that I can only convince you to be for me, by convincing you early on to dislike the other person.
MARTIN: What about Senator Clinton's argument that there is just something, for whatever reason, Senator Obama has not been able to close the deal, is the phrase that she's used. Is that a legitimate point, particularly in the big states that are critical to Democratic hopes in the fall?
Sen. DODD: Well, it isn't the size of the state involved, it is the ones that are going to be in play. I don't know of anyone who at this point who thinks California or New York or New Jersey are going to be anything but in the Democratic count.
MARTIN: Well, some people say, maybe they're not. If you look particularly at the question of race - I don't know what your take is, I would like to know what your take is on the way that race is playing out here. The ABC News Washington Post exit polls said only about half of white voters in Pennsylvania said that they would vote for Obama if he was the nominee. I don't know if they were asked the second question, is it because of race or is there something about him that you don't like, but...
Sen. DODD: I suspect it was more than about race. I think we have come a long distance. I don't think we have completed the trip by any stretch of the imagination, but we're getting there. It's a hell of a lot better place today on those issues than it was when you and I were growing up a few years ago, certainly when I was growing up.
MARTIN: I was going to say.
Sen. DODD: Sorry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. DODD: And so, it's getting better. And in a way, I think Barack Obama has been able to transcend that. He's been transformational in many ways. I mean, obviously, you look at these audiences and crowds he's drawing. This is not just drawing people from the African-American, the black community. And I believe, look, there has been a lot of subtelties. When he won in South Carolina, he won at counties without a single black vote in them. And now if people come out and start playing that card a little bit - and everybody knows the words. You don't have to use words that we consider the worst vocabulary. There are other words that can transmit your message and I think people are playing with those words. I think they're doing some damage.
MARTIN: What about his argument that he can be a transformational figure? This is an issue, this is something that you talked about when you addressed it, something that Senator Kennedy talked about. Do you really think that's possible? Do you really think that one person can change the way we do business here?
Sen. DODD: Yes, I do. I have seen it happen in a lot of areas. It cannot happen alone but it has got to begin there. And this is a process that requires both the ability to come from the bottom up and top down. This place is not going to change because Mr. Smith gets up and gives a great speech on the floor of the Senate, because it's work. It's a labor-intensive job. But you need to be motivated. You need national leadership that will motivate a country to have an influence on those who come to a place like the United States to change.
In the absence of that motivation, it's very difficult to predict or assume you are going to get the kind of change you are looking for. That's why I think Barack Obama fills that gap that we've been missing in this country.
MARTIN: Two more questions, and you have been very generous with your time. I feel like I have to ask you, as a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee. President Carter, former President Jimmy Carter, recently sat down with the Hamas leadership. The administration very critical of that. What is your take? Good idea? Bad idea?
Sen. DODD: I thought it was a bad idea. It's not a bad idea for other people, maybe, in some other place to be talking to Hamas, but for a former American president to do that without sanctioning. We only have one person at a time. Administration conducts foreign policy. You can have an influence and work with it, but as a former president to go off and start doing, engaging your own foreign policy, it makes it difficult. I'm no great fan of how this administration has conducted foreign policy in the Middle East. Quite the contrary. I think they have made a mess of it, candidly, and we haven't been engaged enough. Yet, a period of 30 days, when the war between Hezbollah and Israel was raging, the American president never talked to the prime minister of Lebanon or the prime minister of Israel for 30 days in the midst of that conflict.
But the idea that a former American president with all the symbolism associated with that would step into the middle of all this and decide they were going to conduct their own foreign policy, I think, is highly disrupted. I have great respect for Jimmy Carter and I admire a lot of the work he has done, but I think he has to be more judicious about how he utilizes that reputation at a time when we need leadership to try and bridge these gaps.
MARTIN: One more question, and it kills me to ask this as a New Yorker, but when is big Poppy going to start hitting again?
Sen. DODD: Well, you know, we don't like it to happen all at once. This is what they call the old ham and eggs, you know? We get Manny hitting, Poppy takes a break. The minute he stops hitting, Poppy will be back. Now we've got this new Jacobi. Yesterday he hit two home runs, caught a great fly, I think, and last night's win. So the Red Sox have got this thing figured out.
MARTIN: You know, this is the one time I feel where we are being less than candid here.
Sen. DODD: No, no, we are being very candid. The perfect day is Yankees lose, Red Sox win. Perfect day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I can't vote for you, but after that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Senator Chris Dodd, senior senator from Connecticut, chairman of the Banking Committee, co-founder of the Centre of Children's Caucus, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Sen. DODD: Thank you, Michel.
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